Planning Board Approves Extensive Redevelopment Proposal for Montgomery County

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

A densely packed "science city" near Gaithersburg, clusters of 25-story high-rises in White Flint along Rockville Pike and new developments with minimal parking are among the sweeping proposals approved yesterday by Montgomery County planners.

The Planning Board session, which stretched for more than eight hours, was aimed at sparking redevelopment in the largely suburban county and creating a network of urban villages that would discourage dependence on automobiles by putting jobs, housing and retail close to one another. The County Council is expected to consider the proposals this fall.

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson has predicted that the next wave of newcomers in Montgomery will be more urban-oriented and ready to give up the detached houses, two cars and front lawns of the past. The proposals approved yesterday, he said, are major steps toward creating a new type of suburb where it would be easy for residents and workers to walk, bike or rely on public transportation. Hanson said his hope is to produce "great urban centers" that include a mix of housing types to accommodate various incomes and lifestyles.

Montgomery is expected to grow to more than 1 million residents in the next 20 years and is almost out of space to build, so planners say trying a new development approach is the best option for absorbing newcomers. But many residents, accustomed to a suburban lifestyle built around the automobile in a county with limited public transportation, fear the changes would cause problems.

Several County Council members are enthusiastic about the outlines of the plans but have signaled concerns on issues such as traffic and school crowding and say they will try to refine some of the board's work.

Yesterday's decisions provide a blueprint for political leaders to address an array of issues. The board laid the groundwork for Johns Hopkins University to build its proposed high-density scientific community west of Interstate 270 near Gaithersburg; for developers to transform the aging and car-centric White Flint area into a high-rise mini-city, with a vibrant street life, that could be larger than Tysons Corner; and for landowners to build housing and offices with little parking, provided they are close to Metro stations and other public transit.

The board also endorsed proposed changes in the county's growth policy. Those recommendations, which also will be considered by the County Council, would ease rules that recently forced the board to impose a moratorium on residential development because of school crowding in Bethesda, Clarksburg and part of Germantown. They would also allow 125 more housing units in Bethesda, despite the one-year pause. Nine hundred units in Bethesda have been approved but not built.

Several residents' groups said many of the proposals could add to road congestion and school crowding. Members of the White Flint Coalition, a group of neighborhood organizations near White Flint mall in North Bethesda, said some elements are "unconscionable."

Pam Lindstrom, a Gaithersburg resident who tracks land-use issues for the Sierra Club, is worried about the density of the proposed Johns Hopkins "science city," saying that the area could not absorb it and that planners were relying on "ephemeral, weak, somewhat theoretical regulatory schemes to make it work."

Some residents said the planners are doing too much too soon.

"We are troubled that the timetable for the work program which the County Council intends to consider over the next 10 to 16 months is too ambitious. . . . The Federation is deeply concerned that insufficient attention will be paid to the details of any given issue" wrote Peggy Dennis, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

The huge agenda was pushed by Hanson, who has worked intensely with staff and board members in recent months to complete the proposals, persuading the County Council to extend board member John Robinson's term by a few weeks so he could attend several July sessions, including yesterday's. Robinson often has provided the tie-breaking vote for Hanson's initiatives.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company